Back to top

Posted by Clayton Littlewood
( 0 )

= ( 0 )

Growing Up Gay in the 1970s


There’s a man sitting outside Costa. He’s been there for at least an hour; chair facing in my direction, sipping his coffee, coffee that must have gone cold long ago.


He’s chatting with a friend, his head turned to one side as he chats and his legs are spread, wide, the way men’s legs are when they sit. Even at this distance his crotch appears to be on the large side. Bunched up. The fold in his jeans standing up in a peak. Creases stemming from the mound, illuminating it, like a sundial.


I stare at his crotch, and as I stare my mind drifts back, back, back in time, until it’s not really his crotch I’m staring at anymore. It’s a memory. Something exciting. Something unknown. Something waiting to be discovered.




I’m eight years old. It’s the school fancy dress party and my mum’s dressed me up as Mick Jagger: harlequin tights, a white frilly shirt hanging loose. My hair, long and tousled. Cherry red lipstick, my face powered. Even at this young age I’m aware that I’m different. I look at the other kids dressed up as firemen, soldiers, sailors. Then I look down at my own outfit. I don’t want to wear it anymore. But I’m not sure why.


Then I see the music teacher, Mr Brock. Big, tall Mr Brock. With his dark closely cropped hair, bushy moustache, black, tight-fitting trousers. And his big crotch. I can see it now as if it was yesterday. At eye level. Walking towards me. I can see the folds. The creases. The mound. And as he nears I want to reach out and touch it. I can remember the feeling. So clear. So vivid. But I daren’t touch it. Something tells me it’s not right.


Now he’s walking past. Big, tall Mr Brock. It’s now or never. I’m excited. I clear my throat. I gaze up.


‘Excuse me Sir! Can you, er…’


He looks down. ‘What do you want?’ he says. His face is stern.


‘Can you, er…can you help me take my lipstick off?’


‘Do it yourself boy!’ he says, raising an eyebrow.


‘I, I, er, I don’t know where it is.’


‘It’s on your lips! Where do you think it is?’ and he brushes past.


Then it hits me. I’ve hinted at something that wasn’t quite right. I feel like I’m about to cry. It’s my first feeling of rejection. And it hurts. Even though I’m not quite sure what it was I wanted – it still hurts. I reach into my tights, pull out a paper hanky and wipe my face. I don’t want to be Mick Jagger anymore.


And as I stand there, wondering what to do, wondering where to turn, watching Mr Brock gradually fade away into the crowd, the man sipping coffee outside Costa stands and he waves goodbye to his friend, and then the memory, the memory that just seconds ago was so vivid and so clear, it gradually fades away too.




But Mr Brock wasn’t my only crush. Three years later I had another. On twins. Robert and Bert Hedges. They were big, strong and handsome, with legs like sturdy trees and hair that parted in the middle like David Cassidy; and being an ugly duckling, they were everything I wanted to be.


For the first year at school I was fortunate. My love remained unrequited, and I was able to mix with them, hiding my little secret behind a mask of ‘rugby playing’ and bike rides, trying to assimilate, trying to blend in. Until one day I opened my big mouth.


At the time it seemed just a normal ‘off the cuff’ remark. But within seconds I realised, the impact it’d had; the repercussions of which would reverberate around me for the next four years.


I was 11, still in the first year of secondary school, and attracting, unwanted, attention from girls. Looking back, it was probably my, ‘I’m not interested’ attitude that was attractive. It was certainly a ‘turn-on’ for a very tall girl called Karen.


Karen was not blessed with beauty, made worse by the fact that she surrounded herself with a gaggle of very pretty girls. I can picture her now. So very tall, with the gait of a galloping camel and a body to boot. On a clear day you could spot Karen from the other side of the school playing field. Like an electricity pylon in a hockey skirt. And wherever I went, Karen followed.


I’d be at the Tuck Shop, and there she’d be. Unlocking my bike, she’d be unlocking hers. Walking home, she’d be walking the same route. I was being stalked before the word was invented and what freaked me out was that Karen was pushing for something that I was still trying to understand myself. Then one day, Karen and her posse cornered me. I’d fended off Karen’s ‘cow eyes’ for months. But enough was enough. The courtship had now reached a critical phase. Today they wanted ‘action.’


‘Why won’t you kiss Karen?’


‘Karen loves you. Just give her a kiss.’


‘Will you take Karen to the cinema?’


They were incessant. Like rabid dogs. Surrounding me. Pushing me toward Karen as she cooed and fawned nearby, in her big blue socks, big blue skirt and, no doubt, big blue knickers. Suddenly it all got too much. I had to put an end to the ‘on heat’ Karen and her ‘camel like’ udders.


‘I’ll never kiss Karen! Why would I want to kiss her when I’m already in love with Robert and Bert Hedges!’


Then everything stopped. The jeering stopped. The laughter stopped. Everyone staring at me, wide-eyed, mouths open, looking back and forth as if trying to comprehend what I’d just said. I giggled nervously. Took a step back. Karen started to cry, galloped off. And then the whispering started. And it became louder. And louder.


‘You can’t love the Hedges twins. They’re boys!’


‘How can you love them?’


‘You can’t love boys!’


‘I know,’ I squeaked nervously, near to tears, signing my own death warrant with every word. ‘But I do.’


That was it. The genie was out the bottle and within minutes it was flying round the school. Everyone running in different directions, spreading the word. And by lunchtime the whole school knew. Dinner ladies too. I’d become famous for doing nothing. I was the Paris Hilton of Broadoak Comprehensive. I was also dead meat.


When I sat down for lunch, people moved away. When I walked into a class, everyone stopped talking. When I lined up for the rugby team, no one picked me. Even the school weed turned his nose up when I walked by. I had to regroup, and quickly.


The strange thing was there were boys playing with each other all over school. Schoolboy wanks in the showers. ‘Jack off’ competitions in the bike sheds. Kissing in chemistry lab. But me, who never got a nod from a donkey, I’d broken the golden rule. I’d acknowledged something people had little knowledge of. Defined something not yet defined.


So I started a media blitz of the school corridors. Batting the whole thing off as a joke. ‘Oh you didn’t believe that did you? Me fall in love with a boy? No! I’m in love with Miss Kelly.’ But it was too late. No one was convinced. My plan had failed. From being one of the loudest, wildest and most popular kids in school, I became one of the most withdrawn, one of its outcasts. A complete personality change overnight. Paris was in prison.


Fortunately however, although I was ostracised, I wasn’t bullied, and, for a couple of years, I managed to dodge the threats of violence, always staying one step ahead of my tormentors, my mouth saving me on more than one occasion; secretly proud of how I’d manage to survive the controversy. Until one evening…




‘Oi! You! Clayton!’


I turn round. There are five of them standing outside the school gates. Russell Palmer and his gang. So I start to run. Luckily I’m already 50 yards ahead of them before they decide to chase.


‘Wait here! We wanna word with you!’ one of them shouts.


I look behind again. They’re still there. Three of them pushing ahead. I run faster. Down Winterstoke Road. I’m near the railway bridge. Half way home. Just through the estate and I’ll be safe. But wait. What if I duck into the woods? They’ll never find me in there.


So in I went.


It’s dark inside. Blackberry bushes on the outskirts. Mud mounds that have been used as bike jumps. A little stream tinkering through the middle. Sun filtering its way through the tree branches that hang low on the muddy, leaf strewn floor.


I run to the back and hide behind a huge oak tree. My heart thumping. Trying to contain my breathing. Waiting for the sound of Russell and his gang as they storm past.


A minute passes. I wipe the sweat from my brow onto my jeans. Pick a piece of bark off the tree. Dig it under my nails. Adrenaline gradually subsiding. I’ve done it. I’ve escaped them. Only the sound of the gang storming past doesn’t arrive. Just the sound of branches breaking.


Oh shit! They’re here! I peer around the tree. And sure enough, three of them are inside the woods. Two more standing by the entrance, keeping guard.


‘Clayton! We know you’re in here! Come on out!’


I duck back. Now what? If they spot me they’ll tear me apart. But if I stay here they’re gonna find me anyway.


‘Clayyyyyyttttoooonnnn! Where are yoooooooou?’


I step out from behind the oak tree. ‘Here I am!’


Three boys are facing me. Russell is in the middle. The two boys by the entrance, look over, sly smiles on their faces.


‘Why did you run?’ says Russell.


‘Why did you chase me?’ I reply.


Russell’s fists are bunched, a bead of sweat is running down his temple.


‘Hit him,’ says one of the boys taking a step closer.


Russell holds his hand out, holding him back. ‘So,’ he says. ‘You like the Hedges twins do you?’


‘Oh that old story. That was just a joke.’


‘I don’t think it was,’ Russell sneers. ‘I think you fancy them.’


‘What makes you think that?’


‘Because you’re a poof?’


My throat’s dry. I feel like I’m about to throw up. But I manage to say, ‘How can I be a poof? I’ve never done anything with a guy?’


‘Yeah but you want to do something with a guy,’ Russell says.


He steps closer. One step. Two steps. I need to think of something. And fast. If ever my mouth was going to save me, it’s now.


‘I think you want to touch me, don’t you’?’ Russell says. Another step.


‘Yeah! I do!’ I fire back. ‘Didn’t you know? It wasn’t the Hedges twins I wanted. It was you.’


Russell stops. ‘You think that’s funny?’


‘I’m not trying to be funny. It’s just that if I’m gonna get accused of something then-‘


Russell stares at me and nods his head, slowly. A malicious grin indicating that he’s about to hit me, any second now.


Then a strange thing happens. I look at him. I mean I really look at him. My eyes directly into his. It’s only for two or three seconds, but it’s a look that’s stayed with me ever since. There was a glint of something. Like a shared feeling. A feeling I couldn’t really understand at the time, because I was still trying to figure it out for myself. But it was like he was trying to figure something out too. Like we were both in this together.


He stopped staring. And he tore his eyes away. ‘Come on!,’ he said to his friends. ‘Let’s get out of here.’


And out they went. And we never spoke again.




It was tough growing up gay in the 70s.


Imagine living in a town with no Gaydar, no Grindr, no Scruff, no gay bars, no gay clubs, no gay saunas, no gay magazines, no gay bookshops, no gay film and no gay literature. That was Weston-super-Mare in the 1970s.


We joke now about being the ‘only gay in the village’ but that was the reality. I felt like a freak. The only gay people I ever saw were on TV; Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Quentin Crisp, figures that, back then, I recoiled from. But, as I was to discover, the town had an underground scene, a secret world hidden within the Victorian seaside resort of donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows and fish and chip shops. It was a world that had to be excavated. There was no one to point it out to me. I had to dig deep and find it for myself.


The first realisation of my ‘otherness’ was at school. I vividly remember reaching the 3rd year and suddenly all my friends were talking about girls. This made me anxious. What could they possibly find interesting in them? Yes, I’d played with the odd breast on the school playing field, but it always seemed like a very messy business. But if my friends were into girls and I wasn’t, what did that make me? I was to find out in the town library.


Every Saturday afternoon I’d catch the bus to the library and browse the Young Adult section. But on this particular occasion I was there for a different reason. Research. So, making sure I wasn’t being watched, I slowly gravitated toward the Psychology Section. And that’s where I found myself. In a book on sexual abnormalities. I had a name. I was a ‘homosexual’.


Although I’d been reading this book tucked inside a Catherine Cookson, I almost dropped it in fright. I quickly put it back on the shelf and rushed out.


I took the back entrance, my head buzzing and I popped into the adjoining toilet. And that’s where I made a second discovery. Inside a cubicle I found walls adorned with writing; poetry, political statements, names of football clubs, jokes (‘My mother made me a lesbian.’ ‘If I get her the wool will she make me one.’). And ‘other’ writing; ‘Stuart sucks big cock.’ ‘I like to wear my wife’s lacy panties.’ ‘Meet me on the prom on Sunday at 9pm if you wanna get fucked.’


Discovering your culture in a urine drenched toilet was not exactly life affirming, but it was still a revelation. There were others like me. Now I just had to find them.


The promenade was the town’s night time cruising area. Cars would flash their lights, vans would cruise slowly by, windows would be lowered. One night I stepped into a Ford Transit van belonging to Craig. Craig worked for a roofing company and our dates consisted of us going for a drink at a sea-front bar, then driving to a secluded area on the beach to have sex in the back of his van. It sounds a bit dismal but I couldn’t get enough. I was like a Kardashian on G. After a year of meeting holiday-makers in the dunes, to have sex under an actual roof, without getting seaweed in your knickers, it was like being shown the bridal suite at Claridges.


My next partner was Steve. Steve a few years older than me and he owned the town’s record shop. I became aware of Steve’s intentions by the way he would brush past me while I browsed the 12 inches. This was so tantalising that I would spend hours pretending to look for the new Soft Cell release, reading the credits on every back cover, hoping for my weekly ‘brush.’ Eventually these brushes led to a date. Then, the holy of holies, he invited me to his flat and we had sex. On his settee. Surely it was only a matter of time before a bedroom beckoned.


I was now part of a very small scene; house parties and visiting The Britannia.


The Britannia, was the only gay bar in town and it was only gay on the first Sunday of every month, and only on one side of the bar. I was just 17 when I first went in with my friend Mike Hopkins.


Mike was an enigma. He was the first gay man I’d ever seen in the flesh. I’d be sitting in a coffee bar, or browsing in the local record shop, and I’d catch sight of Mike mincing down the High Street, laughing in a really high-pitched voice, without a care in the world, wearing red trousers, which, I’d been told, were a definite ‘sign’. I’d secretly follow Mike around town, both fascinated and repelled. He was everything I’d been warned about and everything I wanted to be. It was only a matter of time before we became friends.


In those days it was the done thing to call each other by girl’s names and your assigned name was usually related to your job. I worked in a sewing machine repair shop so I became known as Sally Sewing Machine. Mike, who was unemployed, was known as Dolly Dole Queue, and my other friend Rob Brown, who worked on the ‘Pick and Mix’ in Woolworths, was christened Wendy Woolworths.


Every month, locked in Mike’s bedroom, the three of us would crimp our hair until it melted, gel the remainder into rock-hard spikes, and then spray the living daylights out of the whole ensemble. Then, with faces caked in makeup, we’d make our way to The Britannia, like teenage Avon Ladies off to a gay prom night.


Just managing to get inside the pub without being beaten up, however, required a battle plan worthy of the SAS. As I was only 17, still four years away from being legal, this made any sexual encounter not only a criminal act, but considering the roughs in town, fraught with danger. About the same time that a new virus was being identified in the US, I was already discovering that the lure of gay sex could be a deadly pursuit.


The Britannia was a strange bar, dodgy on one side and, given its proximity to the theatre, theatrical on the other. Every now and again there’d be a 70s ‘end of the Pier’ act inside: a faded soap star or an aging camp comedian who would recount showbiz stories to a mesmerised audience, throwing back his arms with dramatic gestures, ordering strange drinks that I’d never heard of, like vodka martinis, and regaling us with tales about the pubs in Soho. And the three of us would sit there, sipping warm cider, watching in awe, like three camp handmaidens, feeling like we’d really hit the Big Time.


But not only was The Britannia dangerous to enter, once you were on the theatrical side, if you spotted someone you knew on the dodgy side, it was a case of hiding behind a pillar for the night so that your secret wouldn’t be exposed. Because this was a secret world. Normal life would have to be returned to at some point, but, in those days, it was a case of never the twain shall meet.


Looking back, the clientele were not exactly the crème de la crème. They were as old and decrepit as the bar. An elephant’s gay graveyard. The three of us were the only things in there under 60. In fact, the clientele were so old that it felt like we were a new breed of gay man, discovering ourselves early in life, rather than upon retirement. It was no wonder we had so much attention.


Sex was playfully experimental, an experiment that could, then, still be conducted without fear. We’d had little straight sex education at school, so obviously knew nothing about what gay men were supposed to do. I remember on my second visit to The Britannia I was asked by an old queen if I liked watersports. To which I replied, ‘I’m the fastest in my school at backstroke.’


If it was hard going for the three of us, imagine being a lesbian. There was only one out lesbian in the whole town, Julie Poolie. She’d be at The Britannia every month, fresh from repairing her boat, knocking back drinks as if the town was about to run dry, lunging at any straight girls who’d been dragged along for the evening.


But waiting a month to meet someone soon became tiresome. So, with my newfound friends, we took to visiting Bristol. This involved catching a bus (that wound through every sleepy village), until, an hour and a half later, we hit the city.


Bristol was how I imagined New York to be. It had a gay bar that was open every night. It also had a club, The Oasis (hidden behind an antique shop). We’d knock on a door, a shutter would be pulled back and, after a few questions, we’d be allowed in. We’d sign the membership book, walk along a dimly lit hallway, down some rickety stairs and then we’d enter a magical world – a world of butch looking men (not heavily made up queens like me and my friends); mustachioed men, in lumberjack shirts, motorbike boots and leather arm bands, dancing and sniffing poppers to the Hi-Energy disco queens, Hazel Dean and Miquel Brown. It was paradise. And no other club has ever quite captured the excitement of being in The Oasis on those Saturday nights back in the early 1980s.


Then, one night, I had my Quentin Crisp Portsmouth vision. A man walked into The Brit who looked butch. I mean, really butch. I’d never seen a gay man wear camouflage trousers before. It was such a revelation that gay men could dress in anything but effeminate clothing that from then on I knew I had to leave that town. There was another world waiting. There was another life to lead.


A month later I was on a coach to London, my parents waving goodbye at the seafront coach stop, convinced I’d be back in a week. But I knew I could never let that happen. This town would destroy me unless I left. So I waved goodbye until my parents were out of sight, then slowly sat back down in my seat and cried. I was free. My second life was about to begin.


And that’s when I met Dale. And I first had sex. In a bed. And I’ve been doing it in them ever since.


Please Wait...